11/5 Seminar, Dipesh Chakrabarty: “The Climate of History: Four Theses”
Guest Writer: Pronoy Rai

Thursday, November 7, 2013

posted under , , by Unit for Criticism
[On November 06, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a seminar with Dipesh Chakrabarty, Nicholson Distinguished Visiting Scholar and Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. Below are reflections on the event from Pronoy Rai (Geography).] 

“Discussions with Dipesh Chakrabarty”

Written by: Pronoy Rai (Geography)

After Dipesh Chakrabarty’s thought-provoking lecture the night before, the seminar provided an opportunity for students and faculty to engage with him on his work on the “climate of history” as well as his previous work in subaltern studies.

On the question of methods, Chakrabarty problematized the normative understanding of continuity in history. For Chakrabarty, the role of historical contingency in understanding our past or “long present” is significant. Since “contingency appends probability (of events happening),” Chakrabarty asked us to understand history by “zooming in” and “zooming out.” For example, would Marx have imagined the problem of anthropogenic climate change when he was writing Capital? Although Marx inhabited a space shaped by industrial capitalism he also critiqued classical political economy. This was just one of the many arguments that Chakrabarty offered to suggest that critical theory as usual is insufficient to deal with the challenges posed by climate change.

Chakrabarty’s first thesis suggests that “anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural and human history.” Andrew Bauer, one of the participants at the seminar, wondered if such a distinction had ever existed, given our long familiarity with archeological records dating back five to six thousand years. And is it time to throw the “natural” out of the nature-human dichotomous understanding of history? For Chakrabarty, the collapse of the two histories is about humans becoming “geological agents,” something that has happened only very recently in human history. This newly acquired agency has resulted in the creation of new kinds of anxieties, such as the “crisis of dwelling” among poor citizens of developing countries. Migration no longer remains a planned, rational exercise, but makes refugees want to go anywhere.

What is the expected outcome of Chakrabarty’s project? Tariq Ali wanted to know whether he was calling for thinking about new kinds of histories; while his hopes may sound modest, in fact Chakrabarty’s ideas have the potential to completely revolutionize the way we think about our past. He answered that he wanted, for example, to change perspectives on the human story that is told in school text books.

As a geographer, I found Chakrabarty’s insistence on the need to raise the question of ever-increasing population quite interesting. Several famines in the past were blamed on the Malthusian problem of “too many people, too little food,” when the locus of the problem in fact lay in the politics of access to food. One wonders what the discussion of the “population question,” especially in poor and highly unequal countries, would do for the lives and livelihoods of the subaltern. While one sympathizes with Chakrabarty’s concern that global capitalism should not be uncritically blamed for everything that is necessarily “wrong” with the world, it would be difficult to miss the commonalities in the interests of capital and states, and the ways in which states (for instance, India) have prioritized certain sectors of economy (for instance, services) over others (such as, agriculture). So, probably our concern, after all, should remain with concerns of inequality. That is, it may well be that even in the Anthropocene we must do more than identify ways in which the problems of population growth have changed. We may want at the same time to ask questions about where the bulk of population growth has happened and why.


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